The Great Spirit
Indian concepts of God may appear contradictory at times, probably because they derive from both patriarchal and matriarchal traditions. For example, Wakan Tanka, the Lakota Sioux name for “Great Spirit,” “Great Mystery,” or Supreme Being, is an amalgamation of a dominant Father sky god, Mother Earth, and numerous spirits who control the elements as well as human life. Other Indian nations since ancient times have believed in a Supreme Being whom they called “father” and thought of either as a man or an animal — especially a wolf — with human thoughts and speech. This creator god is addressed by the Shoshone, for instance, as Tam Apo (“Our Father”). Belief in a Mother Earth figure echoes the Neolithic Goddess culture in which women were essentially equal partners with men, and the feminine principle was openly acknowledged as the great source of human, animal, and vegetable life.
Indian culture also shows the impact, however, of the warlike post-Goddess era, with its violence and its masculine hierarchies, so any attempt to see Native American religion as a direct descendant of Goddess culture is awkward at best. And yet the male and female principles appear to be far more equitably balanced in most American Indian traditions than in Western historical religions. North American Indian culture is divided between primarily hunting and primarily agrarian tribes, patrilineal and matrilineal descent, and women are given a place of respect and influence rarely acknowledged in either the East or West.
The juxtaposition of a personal creator God and anthropomorphic animals derived from mythology is no more inappropriate, however, than the behavior of Christians at Christmas time who set out a creche depicting the birth of Jesus next to a Christmas tree derived from an ancient pagan festival. Native American concepts of life after death can also seem contradictory, incorporating elements of reincarnation (either as human or animal), a heavenly afterlife, and ghosts. The often-disputed Indian belief in a “happy hunting ground” is at least consistent with nomadic hunting cultures in Scandinavia and Asia, for whom the afterlife promises an abundance of game. Agrarian cultures, on the other hand, often saw the afterlife as a subterranean land from which the Mother Earth Goddess generated new life and vegetation.